Tough Times for Admiral Vladivostok
What was already a dire, unpleasant, season for the KHL’s Admiral Vladivostok team took a turn for the worse — if that were possible — this past weekend with the unexpected resignation of Head Coach Andrei Razin after just five games behind the bench. Longtime Belarusan national team defenceman Oleg Leontyev steps up from his assistant coaching position to take the reins, becoming the team’s FOURTH Head Coach of the season (Razin had replaced Fredrik Stillman, who himself had been serving as interim Coach since the firing of Alexander Andriyevsky in early October).
Meanwhile, Admiral are already mathematically eliminated from playoff contention for only the second time in the team’s five-year history, December saw the departure of nearly all of the team’s “big” players due to arrears in wages, and just a week from now the team faces an appearance in bankruptcy court. No surprise , then, that the club’s once-impressive reputation for fan attendance has also taken a serious hit this season. All this, at a club that just a couple of seasons ago was considered a highly successful project, and generally a credit to the KHL. How could things have gone so dreadfully wrong? And can the situation be salvaged? Read on…
First of all, however, a look at how the recent crisis at the team has unfolded:
Razin’s departure, as noted, came of something of a surprise, given that he had navigated a makeshift Admiral roster (more on that in a moment) to a 3-2 record in his brief time in charge. He is also considered one of Russia’s young up-and-comers in the coaching ranks; just 44 years old, he has already had stints behind the benches of Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg and Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk as well as a couple of teams in the second-tier VHL, and was serving as a consultant to HK Poprad in the Slovak Extraliga when he got the call from Admiral. Why his time in Vladivostok turned out to be so short is a matter of some dispute. The club claims that Razin departed out of dislike for Admiral’s admittedly strenuous travel schedule, while the coach himself says that it was because team brass asked him to switch to a non-guaranteed contract. Given the current financial situation at the club, I have to say that Razin’s version has a ring of plausibility to it.
Razin stepping down is doubly distressing because his arrival had looked like such a promising move, one designed to help move Admiral out of their current difficulties and into the future with a strong figure behind the bench. And it came as part of a general overhaul of the front office. The last month or so has seen a new club President (Zairbek Yusupov, replacing Ziyavudin Magomedov) and a new General Director (Sergei Soshnikov in for Kamil Gadzhiyev, who stays on as Deputy General Director) at Admiral. The team also has a new General Manager in former NHL forward Alexander Selivanov, who replaced Ildar Mukhometov in that role. Selivanov is a familiar face to Vladivostok hockey fans, having been part of Admiral’s coaching staff for their first couple of seasons. As an interesting side-note, Selivanov’s father-in-law, Phil Esposito, is also involved in the Far-Eastern KHL, in the front office at Kunlun Red Star Beijing (sadly, Selivanov’s wife and Big Phil’s daughter, Carrie Esposito Selivanov, passed away in 2012).
I mentioned that Razin had done well to go 3-2 in his short time with Admiral, and that is especially true when we consider the massive fire-sale that went on at the team in December. Several players, owed months of wages, had asked the league through the Players’ Union to grant them free-agency status. Before that decision was made however, Admiral came to agreements with the players, releasing most from their contracts while selling off others to some their KHL rivals.
Salavat Yulaev Ufa were the big beneficiaries of the Admiral fire-sale, picking up exciting young star Vladimir E. Tkachyov (Admiral’s leader in goals and points at 36 gp, 14-16-30) and Admiral’s captain and resolute defensive defenceman Oskars Bārtulis (32 gp, 0-5-5). The Ufa team also came away with a good young goalie in Ivan Nalimov (.942 sv% in 17 games for Admiral this season) and the Far-Eastern team’s second-leading goal man, Dmitry Sayustov (30 gp, 12-5-17). To Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod went Slovenian forward Robert Sabolič, Admiral’s second-leading scorer at 44 gp, 10-15-25), along with a very useful journeyman in Kazakh forward Vadim Krasnoslobodtsev (30 gp, 7-5-12) and promising young winger Pavel Makarenko (49 gp, 4-6-10). And HK Sochi ended up with defenceman Jonathan Blum, who was leading Admiral in assists and in points by a rearguard at 43 gp, 1-18-19. Their replacements were mostly recruited from the VHL, and there are few among them who would count as stars even in that league.
The clear-out left Admiral with just two foreign players: defenceman Shaonne Morrisonn and forward Martin St. Pierre, both Canadians. They were the subject of some rather odd comments a few days ago from Primorsky Krai Governor Andrei Tarasenko (the regional government is much involved in the running of the club), who stated that he wanted them gone too, and an all-Russian Admiral lineup. Tarasenko did acknowledge that that could not happen right away, as both Canadians are out injured and so cannot have their contracts canceled. However, his comments came as a surprise to, among others, Andrei Razin, and may have contributed at least somewhat to the coach’s departure.
Let us step back a little bit farther in time:
Admiral Vladivostok Hockey Club was founded in 2013. It was the brainchild of Primorsky Krai Governor Vladimir Miklushevsky and Hockey Hall of Fame defenceman Vyacheslav Fetisov, who was then representing the region on the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian Parliament. The team’s founding was strongly supported and encouraged by then-KHL President Alexander Medvedev, an enthusiastic booster of league expansion (he once said that he envisaged a KHL of 60 teams, stretching from London to Tokyo). Alexander Filippenko became the team’s first General Manager, and Admiral brought in a couple of legends of Far-Eastern Russian hockey to occupy other key positions in the organization. Former NHL superstar Alexander Mogilny became the team’s first President, while Admiral’s first coach would be Hannu Jortikka, who had guided Far-Eastern rivals Amur Khabarovsk to their first only KHL playoff berth in 2011-12.
Though Jortikka was forced to resign early in his tenure due to an illness in his family, and despite having one of the KHL’s smallest budgets, Admiral enjoyed success on the ice right from the outset. They won their first game, 4-3 via shootout over rival Amur, and then went on to make the playoffs in both their first and second seasons. Though Admiral missed out on the post-season in 2015-16, they were back again in 2016-17. The second round of the playoffs remains terra incognita, but the team has never been swept either. Admiral were a success at the box-office too, with the brand-new Fetisov Arena consistently ranking among the league leaders in percent of capacity filled. Some interesting players have donned the Admiral sweater as well: former NHL first-rounders Niclas Bergfors and Blum, as well as other names well-known to North American fans such as Anton Volchenkov, Mike Commodore, and David Booth.
Admiral did good work in developing hockey in the region, too. They brought junior hockey to remote Sakhalin Island (the sadly now defunct Sakhalinskie Akuly team), and worked in partnership with a number of children’s hockey organizations in China to develop the sport there, a project in which the KHL is now very heavily invested. The outreach and development work continues, too; an Under-12 team from Admiral’s hockey school will soon make the trip to South Korea for a pre-Olympic children’s tournament. Admiral even got involved in a “feel-good” sort of story when the club adopted a stray cat named Matroska, and then, after she passed away, honoured her with a statue outside Fetisov Arena. Admiral Vladivostok, though far from a KHL powerhouse, were doing absolutely as well in every facet of the sport as anyone could ask from a modest-sized club.
So what the heck happened? Well, part of the problem it seems to me has been the departure of a number of the club’s key founding figures. Mogilny left in 2015, to take the presidency of his hometown Amur Khabarovsk club, and it may be no coincidence that his arrival there saw a modest but definite improvement in that previously moribund team’s fortunes. He took General Manager Filippenko with him, too, and both are still firmly ensconced in their roles in Khabarovsk. Fetisov went back westward; he now sits in the Russian State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s Parliament, as representative for the Moscow Oblast area of Podolsk (home of the KHL’s Vityaz Moscow Oblast).
Governor Miklushevsky is a more recent departure, removed from his post by Russian President Vladimir Putin in October of 2017 and replaced with Tarasenko, but had likely played a role in exacerbating the crisis at Admiral, even if their financial picture was hardly rosy by that time. Miklushevsky had done much work arranging sponsorship through the Summa Group; now-former Admiral President Mugomedov is head of the company, and Gadzhiyev, the former General Director who remains on at the club but only in the Deputy’s role, also works for Summa. Admiral had likely been spending beyond their means for a little while at least — bringing in some of those “known names” as players was a bit of a double-edged sword — and effects of the political change on their sponsorship situation this season made the problem worse.
Perhaps most importantly, Dmitry Chernyshenko replaced Alexander Medvedev as head of the KHL in late 2014. Chernyshenko has taken a much more conservative approach to building up the league, with significantly more severity towards towards teams in debt. As frequent blog guest-poster Tomáš Vorčák (@vorkywh24) pointed out on Twitter this week, both he and Medvedev likely deserve credit for doing what was necessary at the time; Medvedev’s gung-ho approach got the league going, and spread it across Russia and into Europe, while Chernyshenko’s new strategic plan is designed to solve some problems created by the rapid expansion and get the KHL running smoothly into the future. And the league’s recent crackdown on team debt was a very necessary one. However, it could not have come at a worse time for Admiral, as it was shortly after Chernyshenko’s hiring that public rumours of financial difficulties at the Vladivostok side began to be heard.
And so here we are. January 23rd will be a big date for Admiral, and for the club’s future; on that day, the bankruptcy court will begin to hear their case (the complainant is one of the companies providing travel services to the team). What will come of that we do not know, but it seems highly unlikely that Admiral will fail to finish the season or anything dire like that. As when Spartak Moscow got into sudden financial difficulties a few seasons ago, money will probably be found to get Admiral to the end of 2017-18 should such be needed.
Beyond that, things get a bit more murky. As we know, the KHL intends to contract by three teams this coming off-season, and while two of those unfortunates (Ugra Khanty-Mansiysk and Lada Tolyatti) are likely fairly certain at the moment, the third spot remains open. Severstal Cherepovets have been mentioned as the “favourite” to be sent to the VHL, but they may well complicate matters by making the playoffs in the West Conference. And the VHL, set to inaugurate its international Silk Road Cup tournament next season, would surely love to have a Far-Eastern Russian side to complement its two Chinese teams, Kunlun Red Star Heilongjiang and Cheng Tou Jilin City. Admiral’s financial situation (dire), their on-ice performance this season (very poor), and their arena (new but very small at 5500 seats) will all tell against them when it comes time to determine that third spot.
However, there is also very good reason to be optimistic about Admiral’s future KHL status, and it is primarily because of that Far-Eastern location. The dark days when Amur Khabarovsk were by themselves in the Far East, with a 3000-kilometre voyage (one way!) as their shortest road trip, caused problems of their own when it came to travel. Admiral’s arrival eased the situation somewhat, as did that of Kunlun Red Star Beijing in 2016, and the KHL is unlikely to want to disturb that. Furthermore, as discussed above, Admiral have done and are doing tremendous work developing hockey in the region, both in Russia itself and in China, and the KHL will have taken note of that too. On balance, and despite the current crisis, I do not actually believe that Admiral are in much danger from the strategic plan.
Given that useful geographical position, it is likely that the KHL will also want to see if Admiral’s new administration can fix the situation, and to give them a little bit of time to do so. The Vladivostok Commercial Sea Port, run by new club President Yusupov, is now the team’s Official Partner (though the Summa Group remains involved through Gadzhiyev), and having Russia’s largest Pacific port in the mix may well be a helpful thing. New General Director Soshnikov, although some have pointed out that his front-office resume is not precisely glowing, at least has hockey experience; his predecessor’s sporting expertise lay in the area of mixed martial arts and the like. And as I have mentioned, incoming General Manager Selivanov was part of the original Admiral staff that did such an excellent job in those early days. As for the new regional Governor, given his strange comments about foreign players, the jury must remain out for now, but he at least is showing an interest in restoring the club to what it was just a couple of seasons ago. Said Vyacheslav Fetisov a couple of days ago about the situation at the club he helped found:
“[A couple of seasons ago] they decided to change everything, and we see today what we see. Once again, I have spoken with the Governor several times, and he really wants to recreate what there was in the beginning. But this requires professional people, plans, and strategies. And most crucially: stability, including financial.”
Here’s hoping that stability, and a successful resolution to the crisis, can be found sooner rather than later.
However, to finish up on something of a happy note: Coach Leontyev’s tenure began with a win on Tuesday, and a most impressive one at that. He took his rag-tag lineup to Yaroslav and emerged with a 3-1 victory over one of the KHL’s better teams in Lokomotiv. Purists will complain that Admiral goalie Nikita Serebryakov had to play out of his skin to get the three points (Admiral were outshot 44-17), but a win is a win is a win. For the rest, we wait to see what happens next.
Thank you for reading, and in the next couple of days we’ll turn our attention to the KHL playoff races!